Forget the Super Bowl! For millions of Americans, the biggest spectator sport of 2018 will be the midterm elections. The political winds currently favor the Democrats, but it's impossible to know how strong they'll be blowing come November. Five key races can give casual fans a good sense of what to expect.
In the Senate, the races to watch will be held in Nevada, Indiana and Missouri. Nevada's Dean Heller is the only Republican seeking re-election in a state won by Hillary Clinton. Indiana's Joe Donnelly and Missouri's Claire McCaskill are Democrats fighting to keep their job in states that President Trump carried by nearly 20 points.
These three are must-win states for the Democrats. If they win all three, a series of other close races could very well break their way to give Democrats majority control of the Senate.
If the parties split these races, the GOP would likely hang on to a narrow Senate majority. There just aren't enough other races for the Dems to pick up seats.
At the other extreme, if the Republicans sweep all three, additional Democratic incumbents might also be in trouble. West Virginia's Joe Manchin and North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp would be at risk and the GOP could make significant gains.
Of special importance in these races is the fact that the Senate plays a key role in judicial appointments. Voters in Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia and North Dakota will want to avoid giving Democrats the ability to block President Trump's judicial appointments. That alone could keep the Senate under Republican control.
Shifting to the House, the Democrats are almost certain to pick up seats because the party out of power just about always gains ground in the midterms. However, with 435 seats in play, there are no "must-win" races for either team.
There are, however, a few races to give a sense of how good a night the Democrats are likely to have. The first is Illinois-6, currently held by Republican Peter Roskam. This suburban district was carried by Hillary Clinton. Not only that, special elections this year have shown that the GOP is struggling to hang on to suburban voters. If Roskam is still competitive come November, the GOP might hold their losses to a dozen seats or so.
A more difficult race for the Democrats is Utah-4, currently held by Mia Love. Utah is typically hostile territory for Democrats but they've recruited a good challenger in Salt Lake City Mayor Ben McAdams. Still, this is the kind of seat the Dems could win only on a very good night. If we get to November and this race looks competitive, it means that the Republicans have already lost suburban seats like Roskam's and the Democrats could pick up 35-40 seats. They need just 24 to win control.
The biggest factor in determining control of the House will be the economy. A strong economy helps the GOP immensely (especially after passage of tax reform). However, a second critical factor might be how much Democrats talk about impeaching President Trump. If they do that rather than focusing on issues, it will be good news for the GOP.
None of us can know what things will look like in November, but right now control of the House seems to be a pure toss-up.